Repeated radiation warnings go unheeded at sensitive Idaho nuclear plant via Santa Fe New Mexican

Ted Lewis knew the plutonium plates at the government lab where he worked could leak potentially lethal radioactive dust.

He had seen it occur in the 1970s, when he was helping load some of those plates into a nuclear reactor at the lab near Idaho Falls, Idaho. A steel jacket enclosing one of the plates somehow cracked, spilling plutonium oxide particles into the air. But Lewis and his colleagues were lucky — they were wearing respirators and given cleansing showers, so their lives weren’t endangered.

Three decades later, Lewis, an electrical engineer who had become chairman of the lab’s safety committee, had a bad feeling this could happen again, with a worse outcome. And he turned out to be right.


He said in a sworn court deposition in January 2016 that he shared his concerns with at least 19 others at the laboratory, which holds one of the world’s largest stockpiles of plutonium, the explosive at the heart of modern nuclear weapons. But they didn’t respond, he said, and some of the precautions he urged — checking the plates more carefully before they were unwrapped and repackaged for shipment and setting up a decontamination shower — were ignored.

Then, at 11:04 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, Lewis’s fears came to life in a cavernous room at the lab where workers were readying some plates the size of Hershey’s chocolate bars for shipment to other federal sites and to researchers. The workers had a lead shield between themselves and the plates, but the table where they sorted the plates wasn’t sealed, and none of them had respirators on.

So when a nuclear material handler named Ralph Stanton noticed that one of the plates had a label warning that its corner was “swollen,” he asked a shift supervisor for guidance. The supervisor phoned one of the lab officials whom Ted Lewis had briefed on his worries, but after finishing the call the official told the workers to continue, according to an internal Department of Energy report in January 2012.


Accidents persisted at the lab after the 2011 incident. But officials in Washington charged with overseeing worker safety — and annually deciding how much profit BEA would be paid based on its performance — decided not to let the incidents seriously dent the company’s revenues.

They failed, in short, to use either of two key federal levers available to force improved workplace protections for those involved in handling the nuclear materials that underpin America’s security — by imposing fines or cutting profits enough to compel an end to new safety hazards, or by holding up or completely blocking an extension of the lab’s private management contract.

During the period of the five worker radiation contaminations from 2011 to 2014, the Energy Department paid BEA $68.5 million in pure profits, amounting to 92 percent of the maximum its contract allowed, the Center’s tally shows. (Its actual expenses in running the lab were reimbursed in full.)


They didn’t learn about it until three months after their highest exposure, the investigation report said, because the technicians who read and record their exposures didn’t make it a priority to tell them. As a result, one exceeded his annual company-set radiation dosage limit of 10 rem in 2010, and the other worker nearly exceeded his limit.

The reports said workers should have been told along the way of their monthly exposures, so they were not surprised by their cumulative doses. Also, in a problem that would recur in multiple incidents, the lab did not check the glove box for a particular type of radiation commonly exuded by the material they worked on, according to the BEA investigative report. That type of radiation is not harmless — it can cause cell damage, cancer, and even death in high doses.


Numerous problems contribute to the mass inhalation incident

Then came the radiation contamination of 16 workers on Nov. 8, 2011, which occurred in a white, mound-shaped building that was once home to a mothballed nuclear reactor and still has a massive vault resembling a walk-in freezer. It’s there that the government stores several metric tons of surplus plutonium, which the Department of Homeland Security and the NNSA use to help develop and refine radiation detection devices deployed by Washington at ports and border crossings around the globe.


The gravity of their exposures has nonetheless been contested, partly because the urine samples the workers provided on the day of their exposure were altered by the medication that four of them, including Braase, Simmons and Stanton, were swiftly given. In his lawsuit, Simmons said BEA radiation control officials initially showed him a report saying that his bone surface dose could have been as high as 265 rem, a level five times the annual federal occupational dose limit, 212 times the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limit, and 2,650 times the annual federal dose limit for the public.


Even Simmons’ claimed exposure of 265 rem would not be worrisome if it were an estimate of exposure to the bone over 50 years, Kathren said. But he added that “if a guy had gotten 250 rem in the first year, I would be very concerned.”

Uncertainty about exactly how — or when — the inhalation of plutonium might affect his health haunts Stanton. “I’m always worried this will be what comes back and gets me,” he said.

Stanton and Simmons also say they encountered public hostility from some of their colleagues after they pressed managers and health officials from the company for details of their contamination levels and lax workplace safety practices. “Brian and I sat alone at lunch,” Stanton recalled. “We were total outcasts. But when we were alone and saw them in the hall, people that wouldn’t acknowledge you around management thanked us.”


New contamination incidents

The plutonium contamination of 16 BEA workers was followed by two other significant radiation exposures, with the first occurring in August 2014, when workers in the Fuel Manufacturing Facility, a low structure next to the building where the plutonium exposures occurred, were fabricating radioactive americium in a glove box.


The fifth contamination incident occurred just two weeks later, in a long, low building just a block from the Idaho fuel manufacturing facility known as the Analytical Laboratory. There, on Sept. 9, 2014, a researcher poured some nitric acid containing plutonium-238 into another bottle, all inside a small room with a special exhaust fan. A week later, routine monitoring detected plutonium contamination in the room. Those involved had their noses swabbed, and two workers had nasal contamination, but no plutonium was detected in their lungs. The room was then shut for a week for decontamination.

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